"....the plainswere vast. The conical tepees clustered tranquilly beside a hundred creeks and river campsites with the smoke from the cooking fires above them. The buffalo herd continued to come in numbers that shook the earth." page 26
Ralph Andrist did for the Great Plains what Dee Brown did for America as a whole. This is a readable and scholarly account of how the indigenous culture was supplanted. Andrist’s selection of chapter headings in itself reveals the extent of his sensitivity and his writing style makes his book a repository of quotable quotes.
“As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” (Chapter 1) refers to the supposed ‘permanence’ of the frontier which was constantly altered by land cessation treaties whereby the US government acted like a ruthless door to door salesman, knowingly securing signatures to ‘deals’ which he knows to be detrimental to the interests of the buyer. Despite the continuation of the prairie grasses the treaties were rewritten time and time again.
“Let Them eat Grass” (Chapter II, 1) is a sanitised version of “ Let them eat their own dung”, a still sanitised version of what the trader Andrew Myrick said about the Santee Dakota (Sioux) when they were starving because of the lack of and poor quality of food supplies they had been promised. This led to memorable retribution on Myrick when the native Americans rose up against their oppression in 1862.
“All Acquitted Themselves Well (Chapter III, 3)“ picks out the headline of Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain News’ following the Sand Creek Massacre, when U.S. soldiers ran amok in a frenzy of bloodlust.They killed native Americans of all ages, and even shot Jack Smith, a mixed race son of a trader, in cold blood. This is a chilling reminder of the degree of racism that existed on the frontier.
Ralph Andrist clearly understands the significance of the ‘unofficial’ policy of aggression by the U.S. army. This conflicted with the professed official policy which, being ameliorative, led to the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek in 1867, and resulted in the treaty being, effectively, a pack of lies. He also gives prominence to the Red River War 1874-5, clearly explaining the injustices which lay behind it and the way it finished off resistance by the native Americans on the southern Plains.
Ralph Andrist's work is a great example of how specific detail can be so revealing of the attitudes of the time. Two similar incidents spring to mind in particular. First, following the uprising by the Santee Dakota in 1862 thirty eight of them were simultaneously hanged on a specially constructed scaffold.
“It was discovered afterward that one of the men put to death was the wrong one; it was possible that other mistakes were made”. (page 64)
Secondly, when the (subjective) selection of southern Cheyenne prisoners to be exiled for alleged crimes committed in the Red River War was taking too long, ”Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H Neill decided to call a halt to the chore…….and, in order that no unfinished business would appear on the record, he ordered that eighteen men be arbitrarily taken from the line to complete the required quota of thirty three” (page 199)
Searching on the internet for information about him I was aghast to discover that Ralph Andrist died on September 19, 2004 at the age of 90. This made me very sad as I planned to write to him to tell him about my website and that he had inspired me because I admire his book so much. Unfortunately I was too late; although his work lives on to inspire others.
Not long ago I worked out what, about a writer, is most important to me, whether it is fiction or non fiction. It is their values. Ralph Andrist’s humanity shines through. This, together with the “crispness of its prose” praised by Dee Brown in the introduction (page ix) makes it my most treasured book.